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Newest Cop in Town Is a Stranger to Hollywood Beat

Study: Investigator into entertainment violence is in unfamiliar territory.

January 03, 2000|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — From Hollywood, Robert Pitofsky must look like an authoritarian nightmare--the suspicious parent searching the room of his undisciplined teenager, flipping back the rugs, pulling out the drawers, hunting for something awful.

As chairman of the powerful Federal Trade Commission, Pitofsky oversees the wide-ranging investigation into whether violent entertainment is intentionally marketed to children. And for all the political fury over youth violence sparked by the Columbine High School massacre, Washington's most concrete response may well come from him and his staff of lawyers.

This month, the inquiry turns its focus to the heart and soul of Hollywood: the studios themselves. And the man in charge is a virtual stranger to the industry.

Pitofsky, a 69-year-old antitrust scholar and grandfather of two, is quintessential East Coast establishment: former dean of Georgetown University Law School, attorney at a top-drawer New York law firm, author of the textbook President Clinton used when he taught antitrust law in Arkansas more than two decades ago.

He has spent the last quarter-century summering on Cape Cod. He would not know Pasadena from Petaluma. The total of his West Coast experience is a few months stationed at the Army's Ft. Ord near Monterey.

But those facts fail to tell the full story of a man who grew up reading great novels and, yes, going to the movies. He's a free-speech advocate concerned that in the world of popular culture, something went astray.

As the FTC intensifies its look into Hollywood's marketing practices, Pitofsky will not likely be viewed as an ally to an industry that bristles at any level of government interference.

But as someone who managed to find art in "Natural Born Killers," he may not be its archenemy either.

"Personally, I do think some entertainment today is too violent. On the other hand, government censorship is worse than the disease," Pitofsky says from his seventh-floor office, nine blocks from the White House.

One film studio executive likens the FTC investigation of Hollywood to that scene in "Animal House" in which the tough guys ask the scrawny frat boys: "Mind if we dance with your dates?"

That is how many in Hollywood feel about the government's "study," a term that suggests a benign process. In fact, Pitofsky holds a big stick--the power to subpoena documents. And though a proponent of self-regulation, he has vowed to use force if necessary to get the job done.

"Our goal is to work with, not against, the entertainment industry," he said. "In the end, however, our responsibility is to produce a full, complete record on which to base judgments, and we will use compulsory process if we find it necessary."

The trade commission, which enforces federal antitrust and consumer protection laws, has a history of tenacity. It battled the funeral trade for 20 years until leaders of that industry agreed to comply with consumer protection standards. It was the first agency to take on Big Tobacco, requiring disclosure of tar and nicotine figures on cigarette packs and challenging the cartoonish Joe Camel ads, which eventually were discontinued.

Some critics of Hollywood believe that the FTC's scrutiny could similarly prod the entertainment industry to reduce gratuitous violence, particularly when children are concerned.

"This agency has a history of dealing with some problems by simply putting a spotlight on them," Pitofsky said. "Look at what has happened to the tobacco industry, mainly as the result of [government] reports."

His unpretentious manner is at odds with Hollywood's glitter. While Tinseltown crawls with black BMWs, Pitofsky for years drove a blue Toyota Celica that rattled. When he broke down last year and bought a Lexus, he got the stripped-down model.

He plays tennis once a week at the least exclusive clubs, shops for clothes twice a year for 15 minutes, looks forward to leftovers and always wears a tux on New Year's Eve. The FTC chairmanship comes with a driver and an entourage, but he can often be seen walking the capital's streets unescorted--briefcase back at the office--to give a speech without notes.

He lives in one of Maryland's classiest neighborhoods, has been married to the same woman for 38 years and has three grown children who, like him, all studied law. His early life, though, was anything but charmed. He is less a product of upper-class Washington than of Paterson, N.J., the urban community of Jewish immigrants where he grew up.

His father worked in a silk factory, his mother in a dress shop. Neither finished high school. They lived in an apartment over a barbershop and a bar. There was never enough money to buy their only child a bike, much less send him to Harvard, although he had the grades to go. He attended New York University and lived at home.

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